The Antinomies of Pure Hiring Decisions

As is well-known, the rationale behind an academic hiring decision cannot be the object of a possible sensible experience. As with other supersensible realities such as God, the soul, and the whole of the universe, the attempt to reason about said rationale ends in irreconcilable antinomies, which is to say, it results in contradictory statements, both of which can be demonstratively proven.

  • It is best to go on the job market your last ABD year, so that you’ll appear fresh AND it’s preferable to have your degree in hand and a few years of teaching experience.
  • One should publish aggressively in field-leading journals and seek to publish one’s dissertation as soon as practicable in order to stand out AND it’s best to go the more traditional route and hold back on publishing one’s research so as to save it for the tenure probationary period.
  • One should cultivate as wide a teaching competence as possible so as to serve a variety of departmental needs AND one needs to have a clear, narrow specialization.
  • One should jump at the opportunity to do adjunct work in order to stay in the field and develop one’s teaching portfolio AND one should be cautious about doing adjunct work lest it leave you with the taint of being a second-rater.

I’m sure my readers can supply additional examples. Overall, however, I believe these antinomies demonstrate the abusiveness of the academic hiring process — an abusiveness that comes not from the members of the various committees, who are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, well-meaning people who take their job seriously, but rather from the intrinsically arbitrary nature of the process.

There is an appearance of rigor in the volume of application materials required and the clear stepwise narrowing process that leads from application to interview to campus interview to hire. Yet it’s intrinsically impossible for such a process to yield the “best” candidate. Yes, it nearly always results in a “good” candidate being hired, but that’s because 95% of people who have a PhD in the relevant field will wind up doing a good job. That’s because they have been training for that job for five to ten years.

Most searches will seem to have found that elusive “good fit” because people will generally become acclimated to a school relatively quickly. They’ll be a “good fit” because they’re there. I very quickly became a “good fit” with the culture of Kalamazoo College, for instance, and I was not hired through a “rigorous” application process. In cases where someone is not going to wind up fitting in, it’s extremely unlikely that a twenty-minute interview (perhaps the cruellest charade in the whole process — how can they possibly learn more than they already have gleaned from a voluminous application file in such a short time?) or even a campus visit (when the person is naturally going to be on their best behavior) will let you figure that out.

So: basically everyone applying, within certain limits, will be fine, and basically all of them will wind up “fitting in.” Do you decide based on who has the longest CV? I can say based on personal experience that that is not the case, because I’m pretty sure that I have one of the longest CVs of anyone in the humanities at an equivalent stage of their career. I’ve published two books with a respected trade press, including my dissertation, and one of them was already in print before I even graduated. I’ve placed articles in a wide range of well-regarded peer-reviewed journals — indeed, my success in placing articles has been almost farcically good. I’ve presented at my national disciplinary conference every single year, often doing the maximum two presentations.

Surely I, of all people, should be getting a job, right? I do feel that sometimes, but don’t you think it’d be pretty abusive if the burden of proof for an entry-level, probational job was having published two books and ten articles? And clearly there are people who are hired as ABDs who finish up, publish a reasonable amount, and get tenure with no problem. There is and should be no need to be a hyper-productive scholar in order to get a job in the field you’ve trained for and then, after a probationary period, be rewarded with a reasonable level of job security.

That is, after all, what we’re talking about: getting a job in the field you’ve trained for and then getting some reasonable job security. There is absolutely no need for it to become a meritocratic arms race. The only reason it’s like that is because of artificially-created scarcity. We’re not talking about six-figure salaries and stock options and a jet-setting lifestyle — we’re talking about a baseline middle-class job that leaves you enough freetime to devote yourself to the hobby of scholarship. Asking to get that after a long period of training and poverty is not exhorbitant. There’s no need for the process to be so arbitrary and cruel.

Yet under current circumstances, it’s impossible to reform the “process” of the job market and make it more fair, because the entire university system is increasingly arbitrary and cruel — saddling the students with inescapable debt on an increasingly false promise of higher future income, exploiting well-meaning people who only want to live a calm and quiet life where they’re paid to teach people and do some thinking, and allowing a randomly chosen few to “live the dream” basically so that the exploited masses will still believe that their “carrot” exists and if they’d just work a little harder….

39 thoughts on “The Antinomies of Pure Hiring Decisions

  1. Fair enough. It’s just that I’ve heard this one so many times (this one and the one about the upcoming wave of retirements) and it never made much sense to me. Anything short of some kind of socialist planned economy (everyone had a job in the Soviet Union), there’s no way everyone with a PhD can get a job, especially with the numbers of students going in believing in some kind of magical tectonic change in the job market which will never happen.

  2. One could also take the more charitable route and assume that by “artificially-created” scarcity I meant that it’s more scarce than it needs to be, rather than that I’m embracing some utopian scheme where holding a PhD means guaranteed employment. I could also make the argument that American employers right now are laying off more people than they need to in order to take advantage of the disciplinary effects of high unemployment, without thereby claiming that we’d be at full employment absent that effect.

  3. (The obvious disconnect between the need to constantly push down academic labor costs and the fact that higher education’s cost has far outpaced inflation for a long time might indicate that there’s more “belt-tightening” on the academic front than is actually necessary — even taking into account reduced government funding for higher ed.)

  4. A large percentage of American college courses are taught by contingent labor, so, if all adjunct jobs were converted to full-time labor, lots of people would get jobs. Not everyone, but lots of people. We tend to think of economic problems from the supply-side, but this is really a problem with the structure of demand: the demand for teaching is simply filled by ABDs and some PhDs. As Bousquet says, the PhD is the waste product of the academic system. The ABD is the product (and the site of production).

  5. What’s discouraging is that I can’t even imagine it happening for me. Like even if I got to the campus visit level — which I haven’t yet, in the three years I’ve been on the market — I’d go in 100% sure that I’d fuck it up in some inscrutable way. It seems literally impossible. The disconnect is huge. On the one hand, I have no doubt I’d do well in a position (after all, I’m doing well in my current term position, and why would that change?) and I have had essentially no problem whatsoever producing and publishing my research — but on the other hand, I feel like I have some kind of curse and that if I make any progress in a job search, it must be some kind of error that will be corrected as quickly as possible.

  6. Adam, I am totally in agreement. Hell, you are one of the major examples I go to when I want to go into my whole, “We’re all fucked” speeches. I end up talking about you and am like, “If this guy can’t get a job, any job, what chances do the rest of us have?”

    Honestly, I get pissy whenever anyone tries to treat the job market as something vastly different than a lottery system. I’m not saying that worthless people are getting jobs. Smart, talented, sociable people are getting jobs. But hell, they’re a dime a dozen in the humanities. It’s not like the people not getting jobs aren’t also in the same boat.

    I’m very lucky to be where I am, but I didn’t go to grad school to coach debate for the rest of life. I’m sure I will always have some relationship to this activity, but I can’t imagine handling the physical toll of a debate tournament in my 40s, much less my 50s or my 60s. I love teaching, I get strong reviews from my students and colleagues, and I feel vaguely cheated.




  7. I’m not an academic and have no first-hand familiarity with this process, but the comment “I’d go in 100% sure that I’d fuck it up in some inscrutable way” seems universally applicable. The “inscrutable” part is key. Great post.

  8. Interesting post, Adam. I dig. Freaked me out a little when you launched into Kant and immediately mentioned Kalamazoo College, which is my alma mater. (Why don’t I know this guy?? He couldn’t possibly slip under my radar!) But I see, after some googling, that you’re in religion, not philosophy.

    The job market in both disciplines is brutal and irrational, to be sure. Bear in mind, however, that just as the winds of irrationality many times blow in the wrong direction, they also sometimes blow in the right direction. Jobs and offers do happen. I know “hang in there” isn’t the easiest advice to hear, but I think there’s something to it. Oh, that, and maybe have someone else look at your cover letter and your dossier.

    Check out this blog, if you’re not already a smoker, for updates on the philosophy job scene:

    While you’re at it, take all the PFOs you get from hiring institutions and do what a friend did. Turn them over, print your dissertation on the back side, and bind that bitch. Makes for good coffee table discussion.

  9. “95% of people who have a PhD in the relevant field will wind up doing a good job. That’s because they have been training for that job for five to ten years.”

    This is at odds with my experience on search committees. When you interview, do you really think that almost all the candidates would be good hires?

  10. A big problem is that we all know people from the 5% (of those who won’t do a good job) who actually do have, and continue to get, jobs. That’s the part that makes me despondent. I know I’m not a genius, and I’m not a miracle-working teacher. But I am at least competent. Several of my acquaintances who have campus interviews, however, are clearly not. I wouldn’t be as confused if badasses were getting all the jobs…

  11. NM, That would be really relevant if you were hiring people to do interviews all the time. It’s totally possible to choke in an interview or leave a bad first impression and still be a competent teacher. Indeed, given that our profession pulls from people with disproportionately low interpersonal skills, the odds of an interview-vs.-reality differential are pretty high.

  12. My own experience of the market for non-academic, menial cognitive service worker (ie office work, particularly in an educative setting) to make enough money to get by reflects what you are saying here and the weirdly similar experience The Girlfriend is having, though at an academic level the whole thing is ramped up and made so impossibly difficult.

    Despite my high level of qualification, clear ability to use a computer in any way possible and general inter-personal skills getting even to the stage of an interview seems impossibly frustrating. Just as you say that any person having done a PhD is likely capable of being a fairly good lecturer (particularly when their PhD shows this), any person doing any decent degree and being a modern young person can probably write e-mails, use Excel and not be a total sociopath to the extent that they scare people when dealing with the public. Yet it seems an impossible struggle in built with ridiculous contingency. One advisor at the job centre told me, after saying “we have no idea how to get people are job” that some companies are literally cutting their received CVs in half and binning one half. This process seems entirely plausible.

  13. It could be that you all are just not trying hard enough to succeed, spending too much time on blogs. I knew a person who spoke no English when they moved here, and through hard-work and adversity managed to become an owner of a small business. Anything is possible, if you try!

  14. I agree with Adam on very little theologically but the fact that he hasn’t been hired is a huge indictment of the hiring process. I guarantee that none of the recipients of the jobs Adam has been overlooked for have 2 books, 10 articles, and a theological intellect to match his. I have a tenure track job and I don’t! It’s just bullshit.
    I had a gifted friend who spent 3 years without a job (in History) applying to every Mickey mouse school and community college in the Northern Hemisphere and then was hired at Princeton and fast tracked to tenure. It’s just a nonsense process.
    I’m very angry on Adam’s behalf so I can’t imagine how pissed off he feels. None of the tenured faculty at my institution has Adam’s standing. It’s fucked.

  15. Long time reader, first time writer.

    I agree with the above by Ben Defoe, in that I have the same circumstances. TT job (though at a small teaching school), but not nearly the publication credentials of Adam, of whom I’m honestly envious. His productivity astounds me.

    You’ve heard it all before, but “fit” has more to do with it than anything. You may also be intimidating the heck out of teaching schools, who think that you won’t want to teach a 4-4 or 3-3 and lessen your research. God knows I’d be.

  16. Mikhail, I do sometimes wonder that in my darkest hours.

    Zach, The presumptions that hiring committees have continually astound me. It seems like the majority of them don’t realize that they’re in the very definition of a buyer’s market where even those top people would be grateful to have basically anything. As for “fit” in teaching vs. research, isn’t a strong research record a good indication that you’re self-motivated and a hard worker? Aren’t those qualities that would help someone deal with a heavy teaching load more easily? My biggest annoyance, however, is the idea that someone “won’t stay” — first of all, where are all these opportunities tempting them? If they had the offer from Harvard, why are they applying at a lesser-known teaching college in the first place? Second of all, why would it be such a huge deal if they don’t stay? Just because a college is offering someone reasonable job security doesn’t mean that they should ideally always be signing a lifetime pledge. If the person leaves, then you hire someone else — and there will likely be over a hundred great people to choose from in that case.

    It’s bizarre to me that schools don’t seem to understand the situation enough to take advantage of it. Instead, they psych themselves out and act like they could never get this person, etc., even though this person approached them first.

    And I want to clarify that I’m not saying that it’s more unfair that I don’t have a steady position yet, compared to my peers. I think that it’s unfair only insofar as the whole system is unfair. The system would still be unfair if only people like me got jobs, because as I say above, there’s no reason two books should be the requirement for an entry-level position in anything, much less an occupation that offers you a basic middle-class wage, decent job security, and essentially no control over where you’re going to live.

  17. Adam,

    I completely agree with your assessment. I often hear the trope of, “well, they won’t stay,” and I find it ridiculous for just the reasons you cite. First of all, it shows a complete ignorance as to the true desperation of those seeking jobs (I applied to 100+ in two years and I’m in in the same field) and the scarcity of jobs in philosophy of religion and theology, especially. Secondly, no one knows precisely the reasons that someone stays or moves on — being a highly ambitious researcher is only one among many reasons one would move. One may also find a number of reasons to stay, too, even if one can’t do an optimum amount of research. It’s a crap shoot.

    Were I on a search committee, I’d rather have a great colleague and scholar for three years than a mediocre one for thirty. But that’s just me.

    I always include a statement on research in my cover letters for precisely the same reasons you do — it indicates the fact that I’m self-motivated and can do research despite having a 4-4 and 160+ students. Yet I’ve also had search committees tell me that I should *only* be discussing research in the context of my teaching (how it makes me better, etc.). I don’t agree with this, but I think it’s a reflection of institutional priorities and their perceived conflict with one’s research.

    And no one should have to have two books, multiple articles, etc., to get hired. Nor should one have to be the world’s greatest instructor. But it shouldn’t hurt. I don’t think that’s the case here: I just think that the few jobs in our area were probably looking for something quite specific, though no one could ever tell from the ad itself.

    That doesn’t detract from the overall perversity of it all: no one should be confronted with the possibility of having colleagues hired above them (or to their exclusion) who might use your work as part of their syllabus.

  18. I agree about the presumptuous (and flawed) reasoning behind hiring or not hiring “flight risks.” However, very often there are other considerations that have to do with the broader institutional culture, especially in smaller departments like Philosophy and Religious Studies, that force search committees to think long term. One major concern is if a recent hire does jump ship the line in the budget won’t be replaced, so it might not be as simple as hiring another person. Again, I don’t want to minimize the idiotic “logic” of the job market, but very often these are real concerns.

  19. To add, sometimes the danger is that a good candidate will receive several offers by the end of the search period and some search committees are weary that they would have to go to their second or third choice – that is if you don’t accept the offer and then jump the ship in which case the line might be gone (I know of one such case for certain).

    Generally speaking, I know this might not be the time for these words, but I’m sure you will get a job – my only hope is that you will “tell your story” so to speak instead of just becoming what many academics are, a walking “hey, I don’t know how I got a job, maybe luck, but mostly because I probably deserved it, you know? So work hard and you’ll get one too” assholes…

Comments are closed.